Monthly Archives: April 2015

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” – Vishal Shah, VP of Media Strategy and Business Development, NFL

Just like in the business world at large, analytics and data have taken over sports.  Zebra Technologies introduced wearable player tracking technology to every NFL stadium in 2014 with the company’s aim to implement the technology at all levels of sport.  Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) rolled out a beta launch of player tracking for a few stadiums and events in 2014 and has now expanded to all stadiums for the 2015 season.  Collecting and storing data has never been more affordable and the downward trend will only continue.


Coaching sports now involves monitoring athlete hydration, sleep, nutrition, and stress levels to prevent injuries and to optimize practice and recovery time.  Booz Allen Hamilton developed tools that accurately predict MLB pitchers’ pitch selection and they plan to introduce a tool to predict plays in football.  The economics of technology mean that these sophisticated technologies won’t be just for the elite schools and clubs.  The main costs are typically fixed development costs.  Once the tools are developed, the extra costs of spreading the technology are relatively low.  Match that with the competitive zeal at all levels of sport and it is inevitable that big data will be commonplace at every level of sport sooner than one might think.

Big data hasn’t just revolutionized the performance aspect of sports, it has become the core of the entire sport business.  Think fan engagement, game day experience, concessions, security, merchandise sales, sponsorship effectiveness and traffic/people flow.  As an example of the swiftness of the change, the MIT Sloan School of Management and SAS have been researching the use of analytics for several years and reporting the results in the MIT Sloan Management Review.  In 2013 they used the heading, Signs of an Analytics Revolution.  By 2014 the title of their report was The Analytics Mandate.  According to the report, “analytics is no longer a new path to value.  It’s a common one.”

The implications for the workforce are huge.  Big data is here to stay.  Almost anything one can measure can be measured with the results cheaply stored and maintained.  The challenge is having people who can effectively use the data.  That means understanding statistical and quantitative analysis, having the ability to see patterns and discern their significance, and most importantly having the ability to efficiently and effectively communicate findings to key decision makers.

Opportunities are plentiful across sports and business in general for rising students who are comfortable analyzing data and that ability will be essential for future leaders in the sport industry on and off the field.  Advice from top leaders support the idea that working with data is an essential competency.  As an aside during a panel at the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, John Forese, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Live Analytics – a consulting branch of Ticketmaster that uses the company’s global data base to help organizations know their fans—offered these words:

“One of the scarcest and most important skill sets right now is being someone who is an expert in Omniture or Google Analytics.  If you are fluent in these tools you will not have trouble finding a job any time soon.  It is really becoming the lifeblood of most teams and organizations.”

In an interview on strategic communication for marketing (a core sport management competency) with IBM senior executives Mike Rhodin and Jon Iwata, when asked what advice they would give students starting out today, Rhodin said:

“From the eyes of a student, someone preparing for a career…the advice I’d give is math, analytics, statistics.  Those are becoming a critical skill.”

Iwata’s advice included:

“Every company will be a technology company, not because they are going to make technology, but they will marshal technology in the pursuit of what they do.”

Among his examples were police chiefs analyzing patterns to fight and deter crime, NGO charities seeking the most effective allocation of resources to meet their objectives such as stopping disease or responding to food crises, electric utilities seeking to efficiently manage power flow, and of course, marketing across the board.

It’s clear that at every level of sport training and performance, data and analytics are here to stay and will be key to staying competitive.  In some ways, the development reminds me of the rapid spread of effective weight training.  Young people today probably can’t imagine it, but when I was a high school athlete, our school had one universal gym station and athletes rarely had access to it.  In college we had two bench press benches, an incline bench, and a squat/deadlift station for the whole school including athletes and recreational users.  There were many old school coaches across all sports who swore by the notion that weight training was a detriment to athletic performance. Today all college athletes, men and women from football to volleyball and swimming, use weight training.  Similar to weight training, data collection and analytics will be common at all levels of competitive sport and anyone involved in coaching and training will have to be proficient data analysts.

On the management and business side of sport, some events might be too small or too infrequent to benefit dramatically from data collection and analytics, but anything operating on a scale that allows people to enjoy a career in it will require at least a minimal proficiency in data analytics.

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What are the Olympics?

It is a busy season for determining future Olympic sites over the next few months.  The host of the 2022 Winter Olympics will be decided at the 128th International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on July 31st.   Cities hoping to host the 2024 Summer Games must officially commit to a bid by September 15th.  The 2022 Games will be decided between Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China.  Cities considering 2024 bids are Boston, Rome, Hamburg (with perhaps a Hamburg/Copenhagen co-bid) and Ahmadabad, India.

With a US bid under consideration, it means it’s time for the No Olympics crowd to start making noise and bid committees and cities to get thrown off track.  The conversation often ends up on topics that seem to have little to do with the Games, so I want to get to the core of what hosting the Olympics really is.

A good place to start is with some highlights from the Fundamental Principles of Olympism found at the beginning of the Olympic Charter.

Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

“The Olympic Movement…reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games.”

Ultimately, the Olympic Games is a “great sports festival” or a celebration of things universally considered positive; sport, the joy of effort, culture and education, social responsibility, ethical principles, a peaceful society and the preservation of human dignity.  Who can be against that?

Hosting a festival that includes athletes, officials, spectators, and media from all over the world is an enormous endeavor, but to emphasize what it really is, I’d like to turn to a simpler example: a neighborhood party.  Why would one normally host a neighborhood party?  Typically for universally positive things.  There might be some sort of competition (the joy of effort) like horseshoes, darts, pool, foosball, or board games.  It is a great way to get to know neighbors, build relationships, learn about people’s backgrounds and cultures, and build a more peaceful and harmonious neighborhood.  Those are all good things.

Presumably if a family puts themselves forward to host a party, they expect to gain some sort of benefit out of it, even if that benefit is just their intangible consumption value derived from the joy of hosting.  Other motivations to host the party could be; showing the rest of the neighborhood how nice their place is, getting to know the neighbors better, and demonstrating how great they are at hosting a party.  For newcomers, it’s a great way to be introduced to the neighborhood and establish a positive reputation.

Hosts can take many approaches to hosting the party.  Some might provide everything at no cost to the guests.  Others might host a “potluck” where each attendee is expected to bring something that will enhance the party and some might ask everyone to pitch in financially.  If there is a homeowners’ association, funding for the party might come out of the association’s budget.

The point is that hosting the Olympics is much like hosting a neighborhood party, but on a global scale.  If you think neighborhood parties are a good thing, then you should be supportive of the Olympics in general.  Of course there are many reasons that you might not want to host a neighborhood party at any given time (remodeling, short of money, too busy etc.), but most people embrace the concept of at least some day hosting the neighborhood as a positive, memorable thing.

Olympic legacy is a subject of interest among the IOC and potential and actual Olympic hosts.  This also has parallels to the neighborhood party.  If the party took place in such a way that the hosts’ home got trashed, it cost them a lot of money and trouble, and after everyone left all that remained was clean-up and repair expenses, it would be hard to find future hosts and the neighborhood party tradition would die.  The same thing holds for the Olympics.  For the neighborhood parties to continue, they have to be positive experiences and be seen as attractive events to host.  The same thing holds for the Olympics.

How each individual Olympic Games is organized varies to a great degree depending on the hosts.  More controlled economies who desire to host the Games tend to spend seemingly limitless amounts.  Estimates of the cost of Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014 are in the neighborhood of $50 billion.  London 2012 spent far less, but much of what they spent was public money.  They seemed to take the approach that since the enjoyment of the Games is a public good, private sector funding could lead to an under provision of the Games (either in the quality of the effort or just discretely whether they were selected to host or not), and it is government’s role to step in and ensure optimal provision.  Games hosted in the U.S. in 1984 (Los Angeles), 1996 (Atlanta) and 2002 (Salt Lake City), were largely privately funded and lower cost than other Games.

Consider these varied approaches to hosting in the neighborhood party context.  The Sochis and Beijings of the neighborhood might install a pool, a game room, and custom outdoor kitchen to impress the neighborhood, even though those things might get little use once the party is over.  The Londons of the neighborhood might rely heavily on the homeowner’s association budget to put on the best party they can.

What’s the physical legacy of the party?  In the previous paragraph, the Sochis and Beijings end up with white elephants.  But what if you’ve been planning to get a large screen television an Xbox console, a new grill, or a new serving set for a while, and the party provides an impetus to make those purchases now?  After the party, your house is upgraded with useful things that enhance your quality of life.

Infrastructure legacy of a neighborhood party?

Infrastructure legacy of a neighborhood party?

The overall legacy could include enhanced relationships that might improve your life professionally or personally. It could be impressing others for business and career opportunities or just having an easier time finding a pet sitter or handyman.  Olympic host cities benefit from similar legacies.

An important difference between the typical neighborhood party and the Olympics is that there is an Olympic movement headed by the IOC that is funded by the broadcast rights of the Olympic festival and sponsorship partnerships with commercial enterprises.  When the host of the Olympic Games is chosen, they receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the IOC to help pay for the festival.  In the neighborhood party context, it’s as if there were a well-funded neighborhood party organizing committee, and once you were named host, you received several thousand dollars to help finance your effort.  In that case, you might buy a better television than you otherwise might have or pave your driveway when you otherwise wouldn’t have.

At the core of it, the Olympics should be seen as a good thing.  The flaws in the movement are the same flaws shared by humanity and similar to problems we might see at a neighborhood party.  They are potentially unpleasant and inconvenient, but should humanity’s flaws result in us never trying to get together to celebrate some of humanity’s best attributes?  Likewise, hosting the Olympics should generally be seen as a good thing.  It almost necessarily follows that when we spend time focusing on how we will present ourselves to others, we end up improving ourselves.  People are often at their best when they are looking for a spouse or looking for a job.  For some, their houses are only cleaned properly when hosting guests.  Isn’t it the same with cities?  Bidding to host the Olympics provides a reason for a city to examine who they are and how they can best present themselves in a process that would likely lead to growth and movement forward.

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